As one, the gathered spirit wolves stood, raised their heads and howled in response. The mingled music of the pack and the wolf god filled the sky, both eerie and beautiful, and evocative of a moonlit night even under the sunlight.
“Back away,” Tellwyrn said, her voice just barely audible beneath the wolves’ song. She stepped out of the small activation circle and paced toward the edge of the clearing in deliberate, even strides. “All of you, give them as much space as you can.”
The other elves had already drifted into the trees, and at Tellwyrn’s order the rest of those gathered began to follow suit, retreating till they were all shaded under the foliage, just in front of the outer row of trunks where they could still see what was happening in the glade.
Even to those present not attuned to the fae, there was clear power in the cries of the wolves, especially those of Shaath himself. The sound shivered deep in the mind as it did in the air, resonating with emotions which defied naming and struck the watchers to their core. They gaped in pure awe, some with tears in their eyes, others wearing expressions of consternation, many seeming unsure how they felt as the call of Shaath heard from so close pulled them toward something they did not understand.
The god of the wild howled again and the spirit wolves edged closer, answering. For an instant his very presence burst across the glade like an explosion, causing both two- and four-legged watchers to flinch and one of the Rangers’ hound companions to yelp as if hurt, and then it receded, leaving the god with nothing more than the appearance of a great gray wolf.
“Wolves howl to find one another,” Brother Djinti whispered.
“They howl to answer any who howls first,” Sheyann replied just as quietly. “The instinct is primal.”
The Huntsman lodgemaster shook his head slowly, still staring into the glade at his god. “He howled first… As if he was looking for them. But they are right there. Why does he not growl? He should be asserting his dominance.”
“Because that’s not how it works,” Rainwood stated gently. “That is the point of all this.”
Shaath lowered his head, gazing across the clearing at the woods beyond. He did not focus upon any of the spirit wolves watching him; it was as if he didn’t see them. They fell quiet as well, gazing at the great one with their heads lowered and ears forward.
He flickered again; he was a giant presence of burning gold looming against the sky, and then a simple shaggy beast. The very air faltered around him, refracting light as if reality were unsure what its shape was. In the confusing haze, for just an instant, it seemed there was a man standing in the place where the wild good waited, but that was gone immediately.
His coat was now white and glowing like the spirit wolves around him, but free of markings. He raised his head, sniffing at the air, and it was a nondescript brown again. The spirit wolves edged closer, their body language inquisitive. Still, Shaath appeared not to see them, turning to stare in another direction at the horizon where a gap in the trees revealed it.
Light fluttered, dreamlike, blurring the sight of Shaath as though he were seen underwater, and he was suddenly standing several feet to one side, his coat a different plain pattern of gray and his size now rivaling that of a draft horse. Still the wild god appeared to notice nothing going on around him, not the cautiously approaching spirit beasts or the oddities attached to his own appearance. He sniffed the air again, then turned around to snuffle at the ground.
“What is wrong with him?” Djinti asked in a soft but anguished tone. “Is this your doing, Tellwyrn?”
“It is yours, Brother,” Arjuni said quietly.
Djinti finally tore his gaze from his god to glare at the Ranger leader, grasping the handle of the fae-blessed knife hanging at his belt.
“Not yours only, or specifically,” Arjuni added with a soft sigh. “Or that of your lodge alone. This is what the Huntsmen have done to their own god; this is Angthinor’s legacy. He is trying to be a man, a beast, and a lie, because that is what his people demand. Even a god will tear if pulled in so many directions.”
A muffled noise like a choked sob came from one of the assembled Huntsmen. All of them were tense as bowstrings, staring helplessly at their insensate and apparently disintegrating god.
As they watched, Shaath turned fully around and began meandering toward another side of the clearing, his form flickering back to a smaller size and then glitching to another spot again. A sun-like burst of his immense aura flashed across the forest, then vanished again. The spirit wolves milled about in confusion and apparent worry, while Shaath himself wandered blind and puzzled, resembling nothing so much as an old man lost to the grip of senility.
“He is leaving,” Djinti choked as the god meandered near the treeline. “You can call him, Tellwyrn! Please, call him back.”
“I earned the right to do that once,” she said softly, “and this was it. Gods and wolves don’t always come when summoned. He wasn’t like this before,” she added, her eyebrows drawing together in consternation. “Always the recluse, but he could at least talk… Of course, that was way back when. Before Angthinor.”
Djinti clenched his fists so hard they quivered, and took one step forward into the clearing.
“I wouldn’t,” Tellwyrn warned.
“I must,” he choked. “He has not done anything. He was meant to deal with this. If I can aid him…”
“How?” Arjuni asked.
He was spared having to answer by sudden moment from the glade. The arrow-marked white wolf who led the pack suddenly bounded forward, placing himself in front of the confused wild god. Shaath paused, sniffed in his general direction, then turned aside, taking a step to wander off again.
Ingvar hopped to the side, again blocking his way, and this time darted forward to clamp his jaws around one of Shaath’s forelegs.
Four of the assembled Huntsmen nocked and drew arrows.
“Do not!” Sheyann ordered, and for a wonder, they obeyed.
Shaath, meanwhile, had jerked back, the sensation of teeth on his leg finally getting through to him. He also flickered again, going pure white and then dappled gray, transitioning rapidly between a wolf and a discorporeal presence whose very proximity was an assault on all the senses before settling again, now again as a horse-sized wolf with a coat of golden bronze like rippling autumn sunlight. Finally, as if the touch of the spirit wolf had changed something in him, he truly looked like a wolf god.
Ingvar had released him immediately and bounded back, but rather than further aggressive action, he splayed his front leg across the ground and lowered his head to rest his chin on the earth between them, looking up at Shaath with his ears pricked forward.
The god finally appeared to see him directly, staring down at Invar with his head tilted quizzically.
“Is… Is he trying to play with Shaath?” one of the Rangers asked aloud in disbelief.
As if to answer, another of the spirit wolves ventured forward and suddenly nipped Shaath’s hindquarters.
The god of the wild emitted an undignified yelp and leaped, whirling in midair to face her.
The offending wolf, a smaller specimen whose coat ran in dappled shades of violent and blue, retreated and circled widely around him in a cantering gait clearly not meant to get anywhere quickly, her tongue lolling in a goofy expression.
“And that’ll be Taka,” Rainwood said, grinning.
Ingvar dashed around in front of Shaath again, distracting him from following Taka and placing himself almost under the much larger wolf, bouncing upward to nip at his vulnerable neck.
“He’s going to be obliterated,” Captain Antevid said in a fascinated tone.
“No,” Sheyann replied, smiling now.
Shaath’s great head descended, jaws wide and teeth exposed, ready to clamp around Ingvar in a grip that could have crushed his skull like a melon. But instead, Shaath let the smaller wolf rear up to meet him, their open maws fencing with neither quite clamping down. After a few moments of this, Ingvar dropped back to all fours, running a quick circuit of Shaath’s front paws that took him under the god’s body. Shaath reared up himself, pivoting on his hind legs, and to the amazement of those watching, took off at a run around the perimeter of the clearing.
Ingvar and Taka—and now, Aspen—all flew into pursuit, though they had no hope of outrunning a beast whose legs were taller than they. Shaath, though, slowed, his gait altering to a series of nearly vertical bounds of sheer exuberance that gave them plenty of room to catch up. He turned on them, knocking Aspen over with his head. She rolled onto her back, paws waving in the air, and Shaath bumped at her with his nose until Taka commanded his attention by nipping his tail. The god spun to chase her in a circle, clearly letting her get away.
One of the Huntsmen abruptly sat down in the grass. Rainwood began chuckling quietly to himself.
The onlookers remained where the were, not daring to break the spell by speaking up, while the rest of the pack took Ingvar and Shaath’s cue and swarmed over their god. Shaath bounded among them in clear delight, and an enormous game of tag ensued, the god of the wild leading the huge spirit wolves about as if they were puppies. They darted from one end of the glade to another, occasionally passing quite close to the onlookers but ignoring them, and incidentally wiping away most of the laboriously-drawn spell circles on the ground by rolling over them.
There were no rules to the game, just fun. Wolves would frequently break off from pursuing their big target to tussle lightly with one another in the grass. When Shaath himself finally flopped over on his side, and then rolled onto his back, Ingvar and several others clambered all over him. The wolf god’s head lay upside-down against the earth, panting with his exertion and his tongue lolling out half over his face in a truly ridiculous expression.
By that point, at least two Huntsmen were laughing, quietly but with a thin edge of hysteria. For a wonder, several Rangers had crossed the invisible boundary between them, kneeling beside the Shaathists and murmuring soothingly. The huge pet cat, apparently not much concerned with the giant spirit wolves nearby, was leaning comfortingly against a Huntsman who had huddled into a ball with his arms around his knees, purring.
Brother Djinti just stood, watching the wolves with his mouth slightly open. Arjuni stepped over to stand next to him in silence.
“The pack is a family,” Shiraki said softly. “Tis love that binds them, not force. Love is a greater command than any of fang or claw.”
Finally, after close to an hour, the wolves seemed to wear out their energy. Their scuffling became lazier, tending to consist of lying on their sides and idly trying to bite at one another without actually getting up. Shaath himself sat down while the others gamboled around him, and soon Ingvar followed suit, sitting beside him and leaning against one of the god’s legs. Aspen, Taka, November, and a few other wolves who were not so easily identified lolled at Shaath’s feet.
He raised his head again, not sniffing the air this time, but closing his eyes and seeming just to pause and feel the wind, the sunlight. Eventually, the rest of the pack grew still as well, turning to regard the wolf god in silence.
Shaath opened his eyes, lowered his nose, and looked directly into the shadows beneath the trees where the humans and elves waited, watching.
“Let any who are friends of the wild come forth.”
He did not move his jaws to speak, but there could be no doubt who was talking. His voice, though a light tenor, resonated through every breath of air and blade of grass. It could be felt in the bones as much as heard with the ears, though it was gentle.
Antevid and Luger exchanged a long look, and by unspoken agreement stayed right where they were, their respective squads also holding formation. The Huntsmen, Rangers, and elves all stepped forward into the sunlight at the god’s command, however.
“Arachne,” Shaath’s voice echoed through them again. “Always the meddler.”
“You are welcome,” she said pointedly, planting her fists on her hips.
Shaath dipped his head once in acknowledgment. “Debt between us is not settled. Though you invoked it in payment of my promise, this summons has been the greatest kindness I have been paid in uncounted turns of the seasons. I am still in your debt for this, Arachne. You are a good friend, prickly though you may be.”
“Yeah, yeah,” she said with a wry smile. “Anyway. I actually did call you here for a reason.”
“Yes.” Shaath lowered his head again, regarding Ingvar from close at hand. The white wolf gazed seriously up at him, a picture of calm. “This was awkwardly done, and went wrong. I empathize greatly with that, with the best intentions trapping a friend of the wild in a savage form, unable to think or remember the truth of who he is.”
Several of the Huntsmen had tears running down their faces now. Shaath turned his head to study them directly, and more than one flinched.
“Malice threatens the wild less than simple, selfish thoughtlessness,” said the god, his tone purely weary. “Recrimination is pointless. The harm you have done—all of you, those who claim to be my Huntsmen—was with the best intentions. And still there are so many. All believing lies, defending lies, imposing their madness upon the world. Upon the wild. Upon me.”
Slowly, he stretched is forelegs forward, lowering himself to a sphinxlike pose, and languidly blinked his eyes.
“I am tired,” the god announced. “Already I feel the fog pressing in upon me again. This was a pleasing reprieve, but it will not last.”
“Lord!” Djinti burst out, stepping forward. “How can we help you? What must we do? If we have wronged you, there is nothing we will not do to make amends!”
“But can you?” Shaath asked. He lifted his head again, nose to the wind. “We will see. I taste the madness of this magic on the air, nightmares cast through the realm of the spirits to plague the world. The howl of the wolf will rise every night until this is put to rest. But if it is simply wiped away, what shall become of me? If all returns to what it was, why should my followers stir themselves from their complacency?”
“We will not forget again!” Djinti swore. “Tell us your truth, lord, and by my blood and my soul, I will see it spread to the world.”
“You…will…see,” Shaath stated slowly. “Yes. You will see what happens when people are shown truth. You will see what marks people apart from the wild: what they do when faced with a truth they do not like. You will see what you have shown me all these years, the stubborn madness of those who seek to substitute their will for that of the world. I will not silence the howling.”
“Now, see here,” Tellwyrn began.
“Not completely,” Shaath clarified, turning to look at her. “This madness helps no one. I see how it has infected the flows of magic; that I can fix, and will. But while I am here, and lucid, and before it takes me again, I curse my people with the harshest fate I can: truth. All who presume to call upon my name will know the truth of the wolf every time they dream. All my Huntsmen will face what they have done, every night, until I can finally rest in truth. And you will see how many of them can bear it.”
He lowered his head completely to rest upon the ground, blinking again.
“If you would walk the way of the wild in truth, follow the one who is my true Huntsman. The brother who has sought to free me.”
There was no flash or fanfare, no display of magic that could be seen; suddenly, they were simply restored. Ingvar, Aspen, Taka, Tholi and November stood or sat closest to Shaath, with the smaller groups of younger Rangers and Huntsmen who had gone with them nearby, all human again and blinking in bemusement. The rest remained as they were, the wolf family who had joined them still pale as moonlight and marked with the colorful favor of the spirits they had invoked.
Ingvar knelt, wrapping his arms around Shaath’s great neck, and pressed his face into his bronze fur. As if at his signal, the others did likewise, coming forward to lean against or on top of the god until even his huge form was almost covered by their bodies.
“Thank you,” Shaath said, his voice already fading. “Thank you.”
Then they all stumbled to the ground, as he was gone.